When I was in graduate school, I worked part time in the bakery of my local grocery store. I did two tours of duty there, decorating cakes, baking things, and mopping floors. It was hard work, but it paid bills.
I am a fair hand at decorating cakes. I even had a small business making specialty and wedding
cakes for a few years, which was extremely important to my mental health while I was battling a very difficult season in my professional life.
Baking cakes and creating beauty gave me an outlet for my creativity and a source of affirmation from the people who ate and admired the final product. What labor I invested and what satisfaction I gained from that season – it was healing work.
When I joined the store bakery, however, my creativity had to be stored away until it was wanted. (It was rarely wanted.) We churned out icing roses and ruffled edged birthday cakes by the dozen, plucking plastic cartoon toppers from a bin to make it look like the demo in the catalog. I did it willingly and with excellence because it was still my work, and I needed to feel proud of it.
One Saturday – the busiest day for cake pick up in any bakery – I arrived to find I was the only decorator on the schedule. There were 30 or 40 cakes, most of which were due by 2:00 pm. I had to get busy.
Then I saw it – an order for a full-sized sheet cake. The customer had requested a design with stars, left to the discretion of the decorator. No plastic trinkets, no pre-fab design, just a blank canvas…and boy did I make it a canvas. Ignoring the massive amount of work backing up behind me, I poured every pent-up bit of creative energy I had into icing and decorating a full-sized sheet cake recreation of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
Instead of quickly piping on some normal, colorful stars, I pulled up an impressionist painting on my phone and tried to make it work with icing. (It looked awesome, by the way…sorry to say I didn’t take a picture.) I was so happy and satisfied with my work, and I imagined the customer arriving and raving over the beauty of the buttercream.
I rode that high all day, finished the rest of the cakes and went home still smiling that I had finally gotten to use my skill and talent to create a work of cake-art.
Then it occurred to me that I had really screwed up.
I was so starved for an outlet for my skills that I took advantage of a situation and probably cost my employer money. I wasn’t there when the customer picked up the cake…but I guarantee you they demanded a remake on the spot. What I created was excellent and lovely but completely unnecessary and undesired.
This story drives home an immortal truth of my professional life: value is everything.
I am continually asking myself questions about my professional value. These questions represent a kind of metaphysical equation that has to be balanced. The value I recognize, the value my employer recognizes, and the value the end user recognizes all need attention and respect.
Is my work creating value?
Is my work valuable to me personally?
Is my work valuable to someone other than me?
Is my work valuable to the people who hired me and to the people I’m supposed to be serving?
In order for work to be engaging in the long term, the answer to all of those questions has to be yes. I have gone through long periods where the answer was no - except the value I was adding to my family’s budget by bringing in a paycheck. That misalignment resulted in strange outputs like my ill-fated artistic grocery-store cake. I was not waving but drowning to see value in my work.
Not long after this little episode, I graduated with my Master’s degree and took up a wonderful job supporting rural health care. I have since been blessed with many ways to satisfy my need to create value professionally. There has been growth, meaningful work, and the sometimes tangible proof that I am making a difference.
My interest in decorating cakes soon fell away to nothing, and I sold most of my supplies in a yard sale, saving only a few things for my sons’ birthdays and never looking back. (The remnants of that time live on at www.bakelore.blogspot.com, if you are curious.)
Once I felt my value and saw the value I could contribute, there was balance again…although significantly less cake.
If this post spoke to you, I hope you’ll tell me about it. I would love to hear about your journey to professional joy in finding your own value balance.